Day 22: Adventure Stage Chicago on conscious engagement with a bilingual audience

by Tobi Mattingly | Aug 12, 2016

If you’re just joining us today, we’ve been spending all month counting down to our 2016 Lab un/spoken: The Language of the Stage. Every day for the thirty days leading up to the Lab, we’re sharing on a different angle of our theme.

Here we are at day 22, and in three full weeks of posts we haven’t yet covered anything related to the most obvious definition of language; i.e., the system of communication used by a community or country. That is to say, English or Spanish or Russian or Korean or Pig Latin or… well, you get the picture.

Adventure Stage Chicago, resident in and extension of the Northwestern Settlement on Chicago’s west side, serves a population for which English is predominantly not the first language. Over the past several years, they’ve developed and refined a way to actively engage this audience with their heroic stories about young people: they supertitle them all in Spanish.

Recently I chatted via email with ASC Artistic Director Tom Arvetis about how and why they’ve added this element to their programming, how it’s impacted their relationship with the community, and how it’s shaped their artistic mission. The interview is shared here in full.

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For readers who may not have seen an Adventure Stage show before, can you start by telling us a little about how and why you supertitle your shows?

Adventure Stage is part of a larger organization called the Northwestern Settlement Association. It’s a social service agency with roots in this neighborhood that go back 125 years! Over that century-plus history, the Settlement has served predominantly immigrants.

In an effort to remain relevant to the current population served, we translate all of the plays that we produce into Spanish. Thus far, we have translated eight shows, five of which were world premieres. Let me tell you, translating a script that is still in process is quite a challenge. If there is Spanish written into the script, we provide the English translation. We make sure this is all ready to go by Opening and it runs as part of every single performance we offer.

When and how did ASC decide to add this element to performances?

We noticed that folks who were participating in other programs throughout the building were not participating in our programming. We had to ask ourselves lots of tough questions to figure out why. And I would say this is only one tactic at an effort designed to engage a larger part of our community.

They weren’t asking for it. But rather than ignore these people who, as I say, are in the building, we decided to push ourselves further.

Initially, we thought we’d offer special performances that were supertitled. Then someone asked us, “Are those neighbors not welcome to other performances?” And we realized we needed to find a way to make it happen for every show.

What has the audience response been?

We offer one performance during the run where we celebrate our neighborhood and offer these folks free tickets. And we find this is the show they are most likely to attend.

On weekends when it’s a paying general public audience, we’ve gotten big thumbs up from folks who did not realize we offer it. They say they wished more theatres in town did it.

We also get compliments on the quality of our translations which is a very tricky undertaking. It’s not simply word-by-word translation. So often, the worlds on our stage are unique and the lexicon within those worlds is unique. So the translators have to get very creative and be very consistent as they try to convey character and attitude along with the playwright. We’re really lucky, though. Our translators are members of our community.

Has offering supertitles led to an increase in audience in any way that you’ve been able to clearly correlate?

It’s a long game. We’re not seeing huge numbers. Nobody, short of those folks who come every Opening when we are giving tickets away, is coming because we offer translation… yet.

Do you feel ASC’s larger relationship with your audience and community has changed since offering supertitles, and if so, how?

I’m confident that the audience we want to reach with this effort is both moved and appreciative. By engaging community members in the translation process, I believe we’ve built important relationships that help change that larger relationship.

Outside of the supertitles, are there other initiatives ASC uses for outreach to its Spanish-speaking community?

We do invite community members into story-gathering workshops we call Story Circles. These are usually facilitated by an ASC staff member and almost always have a playwright present. And whenever possible, we have someone in the room who can translate. The content gathered in these settings becomes the building blocks for our original work.

How has doing this kind of community engagement affected you artistically – both you personally as an artist, and ASC as an organization?

I can safely say that doing this kind of work has transformed my point of view as an artist and has challenged me to be a better listener as a creative person. Gone are the days when I might have thought I could create only for myself. That my ideas alone are enough.

I think if one wants to be in dialogue with a community or an audience, one has to be brave enough to identify the community or audience they want to connect with and then brave enough again to listen. I think the norm in society is to talk to oneself. Or to surround oneself with people who share the same opinion. Just look at the way our electoral politics are so partisan. Most of the time, people are preaching to the choir.

Artists can suffer from the same echo chamber. Adventure Stage staff has to be really careful not to jump to conclusions about the type of programming our neighbors want, the types of shows we think they’ll respond to. Just because, when talking amongst ourselves, we think it’s a good idea doesn’t automatically make it so. Is our brilliant idea serving an expressed need? Or maybe we can start with the need and build from there.

Tobi Mattingly is a Chicago-based director, actor, music director, and teaching artist. She is the founder of Artistic Conspiracy, an arts organization dedicated to creating and enabling world-changing theatre. Through this organization, she helps professional theatremakers take control of their theatre careers through learning and balancing artistic craft, bodymind practices, and business/marketing management.